I was in my early teens the first time I heard black dishes called "soul food." Brought up in a family with a reverence for all things black, particularly the black culinary genius, I accepted the word, smacked it in my mouth and said it was good. After all, it was simply right to have something that so often touched me to my very core labeled and linked with my soul and the souls of all African Americans.

In 1981, when I began to work as an assistant under Venezuela Newborn, then the food editor of Essence magazine, a publication directed toward black women, my view of such a term of endearment was transformed. It seemed that during her some 14 years as food editor, she had encountered and denounced the words "soul food" more times than she cared to mention. Their very utterance, I gathered all too soon, made her sizzle, so to speak.

"What do you mean by 'soul food?' " she snapped in probably our second conversation.

The question stopped me in my tracks. I knew she knew what I meant. I wondered whether she knew how important it was for me to understand her reasonings on matters -- and how important it was to me that we got along.

But I was instantly puzzled by her reaction. After all, wasn't she the prima donna of the black food world, the last word on my people's cookery ... how was it that she didn't love the words "soul food" like every other black person I knew? Cautiously, respectfully, I asked about her distaste for the description -- and opened Pandora's pantry in the process.

It was all quite simple, she retorted. "The word {soul} doesn't go with food. When you talk about your soul," she said, "you are going to church." Although this was strictly a literal interpretation of the word, Vennie Newborn clung to her conviction about the churchy root of "soul," reserving the same sentiments for black people's habit of referring to one another as brother or sister.

But what about soul food's understood connection with the history of the struggle of black people in this country, I ventured. Didn't the very use of the word "soul" spring from our need to identify, to embrace our blackness in the '60s and '70s -- hence soul sister, soul brother, soul food? To me, the ham-hock-flavored beans, the delicately seasoned chitterlings, the corn bread we loved so well spoke directly to the soul. They had as much to do with the black experience, I said reverently, as afros, a raised fist or James Brown on the radio once had.

Her response, which began with the word "Please!" centered, quite emphatically, around the fact that food has nothing to do with politics. Never had and never should. In retrospect, I could have pointed out that the very environment of slavery and racism in which black cookery was nurtured in this country was political. We so often had the poorest of animal portions to work with, the most meager means to feed ourselves and our families. Wasn't oppression political? I should have argued these points and more. But that was all before I knew Newborn or knew enough on the matter. Back then it was but my place to listen.

And it was Newborn's place to teach, which she did, as she cooks, with a passion. It was Newborn who taught me the clear links between the spiced beans, okra and grain dishes that black Americans fixed and loved and the staples of the Caribbean and African diets. Our dishes with those ingredients, as well as greens and yams, not only tasted like but were remarkably similar to the Caribbean and African dishes.

Patiently, with the same tender loving care with which she taught many black readers to stoke a pot, she in time instilled in me an awareness of the deep significance of food and dining within the black family, how food was not simply a source of nourishment but a bonding medium. To us, our own foods were nothing short of love, pure reassurance, hot from the stove.

Best of all, I guess, Newborn impressed upon me an awareness of how black food serves as one of the most unadulterated records of our people's culture. And after centuries of feeding other folks our masterpieces, only today, after years of ridicule and misunderstanding, is African-American cookery gaining its rightful recognition in the larger arena of the food world.

To Newborn -- and because of Newborn, to me -- cooking is an art, and the black cook, in particular, is nothing short of a maestro of dignified distinctions.

In time I discovered that Newborn's culinary convictions concerning the use of the phrase "soul food" were not based on a lack of a political consciousness. Rather her impressions were rooted in her own reverence for what African-American cooks can create in a set of pots. Simply put, to Newborn, making food that is unmistakably black doesn't make it soulful. It just made it special.

It was specifically the distinction of the African-American cook and our unique cooking style that, to Newborn, made the use of the words "soul food" such a mockery. "They are forever tacking something on us" she shrugged sadly, not bothering to elaborate on whether she felt the description was the product of a black or white mind and, apparently, not caring who the culprit might be.

I wrestled with her assumption about the use of "soul food" for years. Obedience made me accept her view when we were preparing copy. Habit made me drop it from my vocabulary in general, food-related chatting. But secretly I wondered whether it was kosher to reject a description that worked. After all, we seemed to be the only two on the earth who were grousing about the words' usage.

It was only by allowing Newborn's logic to linger in my palate for a good while that the rightness of it all rang true. In the early '80s, as we witnessed the whole country slim down its diets, we relished the fact that most of black cookery was ready-made, from-the-earth healthful. Dutifully, we also trimmed down the calories where necessary, suggesting a smorgasbord of functional updates to traditional tastes.

Our readers ate the new direction up. Their overwhelming response signaled to me even more a need to salute the fact that a modification was taking place in the way African-American folks in this country were serving our age-old staples. What better way to acknowledge this quiet revolution, we reasoned, than to formally change what we called these foods we so loved.

But where to begin? What else were we to suggest that folks call this treasure? Our taste buds, obviously swifter than we were, could identify all that was black cookery in a heartbeat, even if our voices had trouble defining it. Outside of the phrase "soul food," however, our minds went dim. Admittedly, our use of the labels "black American cookery," "black American food styles" and simply "Southern cooking"within the magazine never officially caught on. And, to this day, no label has claimed the same impact of those two unpretentious words, "soul food."

Yet, as we await a replacement or, more properly, an update, an interesting development has taken place. Perhaps through some grace of mother time -- which soothes all stutterings of man -- or through everyday forgetfulness, somewhere between the early part of this decade and now, the use "soul food" has dissipated. Simply stewed away to the nether land of other stereotypical, though fondly uttered, slogans. And while I no longer grimace when someone brings up the words, resolving rather to let folks call it what they may -- long as they respect it and love it for all that it is -- Newborn couldn't be happier.

Here are some recipes from Venezuela Newborn -- for Chicken Jambalaya, Pepper Cornbread, and Southern Collard Greens and Cabbage:


(4 to 6 servings)

1/2 pound salt pork or fatback

4 pounds fresh collard greens, washed several times, leaf by leaf in cold water

3 cups water

1 head (about 3 pounds) green or white cabbage, quartered, cored, washed in cold water

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Slice salt pork or fatback. Place in a large dutch oven over medium flame. Cook until fat is rendered. With a slotted spoon, remove pieces of pork. Discard. Slice collard greens thinly and place in dutch oven. Add water. Cover and cook 2 hours over low heat. Thinly slice cabbage and add to pot. Stir well to blend with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle on pepper. Cook 45 minutes longer. When greens are done, remove to large serving dish. Serve with diced fresh tomatoes and finely chopped onion.


(8 servings)

2 cups old-fashioned stone-ground white cornmeal

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup grated onion

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

8 3/4-ounce can cream-style corn

1 small green chili pepper (seeded and chopped)

1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

In a large mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, baking soda and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon to blend. Add oil, eggs, onion, buttermilk, corn and chilies. Stir mixture well. Grease a 10-inch iron skillet or 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan with shortening. Pour in half the batter. Sprinkle 1/4 cup grated cheese over batter. Pour in remaining batter. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.


(6 to 8 servings)

3- to 4-pound stewing chicken, quartered

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons cooking oil

2 cups onions, chopped

16-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped, with juice

1 cup celery, diced

2 quarts water

2 cups converted rice

2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup sliced scallions

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

Season chicken with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. In a large dutch oven, add cooking oil. Heat on very high flame. Add chicken pieces. Brown lightly on both sides. With a slotted spoon, remove chicken pieces. In the same pot, saute' onions until transparent but not brown. Add tomatoes and celery and return chicken pieces. Cover with water. Reduce heat to medium. Cook until chicken is tender (about 1 hour). Add 1 cup water if necessary, keeping the liquid to about 2 quarts. Add rice, hot pepper sauce and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon to blend. Turn heat to low; cook slowly until rice is done, about 45 minutes. Add scallions and parsley. Toss with a long cooking fork.